Severe stress forces immigration officers to seek medical help

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

Severe stress drove 30 immigration officers to seek help from in-house psychologists last year, and half of them were junior frontline staff, official statistics show.

Insomnia, fear of crowds and anxiety attacks were common mental health problems among officers who had lengthy periods of duty at the border, immigration officers' unions said.

Immigration Department figures show there were 54 new psychological distress cases in 2009 and 30 last year.

Three-fifths of the requests for psychological help in 2009 and half last year were from immigration assistants.

Immigration assistants are junior frontline officers who check documents at the border.

In 2007, the Immigration Department, which has 6,600 workers, had the highest percentage of staff diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses among the seven disciplined services.

Since the department set up a Wellness Services Centre in 2008, there have been 145 cases reported.

But the union said this figure did not reflect the actual situation, as many officers were reluctant to admit they might need help.

'Frontline officers fear that if they reveal they have stress-related problems, it will hinder their career and promotion prospects,' said Ng Ting-hi, the chairman of the Hong Kong Immigration Assistants Union.

The department was the third agency, after the police and correctional services, to provide in-house psychological services.

Last year, the number of people passing through immigration checkpoints rose 8 per cent to 240 million, while visitor arrivals grew 22 per cent to 36.1 million.

Each officer on counter duty at border checkpoints faced hundreds of people every day. Sometimes they had to deal with emotional travellers who blamed them for delays or were harassed by them, Ng said.

He cited a case a few years ago where an officer was sent to hospital after he was found to be emotionally unstable following an argument with a superior.

'The employee was transferred to another position afterwards, and can only speak and respond in a slow manner,' Ng said.

Immigration Service Officers Associations vice-chairman Ngai Sik-shui said: 'In the long run, more manpower to deal with an increasing passenger flow is the key to resolving the mental health problems of staff.'

In a written reply, the department said most of the officers were suffering from mood disturbances because of work-related stress, interpersonal relationships at workplace, family stress and marital problems.

A psychological assessment would identify the source of a problem and psychotherapy would be provided when the need arioe. 'A clinical psychologist will also render same-day priority service for staff in urgent need,' it said.

Under distress

The number of immigration officers who sought treatment from psychologists last year: 30